Anatomy of a riot in North East Delhi

Poornima Joshi |A. M. Jigeesh | Updated on: Dec 06, 2021

In this densely populated area, migrants eke out a living through small trade and businesses. Their fragile lives are too easily broken. Poornima Joshi and AM Jigeesh report

Paramilitary men shoved Mohammad Yamin, 48, with tense crowds of onlookers watching as hordes of television crews descended on Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) councillor Tahir Hussain’s factory-cum-home on March 1, two days after the police had charged him for the gruesome murder of his neighbour and Intelligence Bureau (IB) operative, Ankit Sharma. Sharma’s body had multiple stab wounds and was dumped in a vast sewage drain that runs through the length of shanties, rehabilitation colonies and slum clusters such as Khajuri Khas, Chand Bagh, Bhagirathi Vihar, Mustafabad and Shiv Vihar that witnessed the worst of the rioting in North East Delhi for three days during February 23-26.

The rioting had ceased within a week, leaving gutted remains of the homes, shops and little factories scattered in the narrow lanes where the police and paramilitary staged intermittent marches. Those like Yamin who escaped and took shelter elsewhere slowly converged to survey the damage and retrieve what they could.

Chased back, Yamin edged further into the lane, gauging if he would get the chance to cross the street to get to his friend’s home to borrow some clothes. His own were torched by a riotous mob on February 23 with everything else he owned, in the one-room tenement he had rented in the nearby Bhagirathi Vihar. He, his wife and 16-year-old daughter fled, hopping roof terraces, and were sheltered by a kindly Hindu neighbour. The bright red oversized shirt that his protectors have lent Yamin somehow magnifies the total loss of this vegetable seller’s dignity.

“My cart is missing. I had a room, some jewellery. Everything has been burnt down. People who saved us are kind but how long will we borrow things? ” asks Yamin. He is not sure if and when his family can go back to their rented room. “My Hindu neighbours are kind but some people are saying there will be more violence.”

The poor and the poor er

Yamin is among the hundreds of migrants, lower middle class people who live cheek-by-jowl in the poorest, largely illiterate and the most ill provided for district in the shiny Capital city that boasts of wide roads, flyovers and the highest per capita income in the country. The murder of 26-year-old Sharma and the subsequent arrest of Hussain in Yamin’s neighbourhood typifies the communal wedge driven into the everyday struggles of daily-wagers, factory workers, garment makers, bakery owners, who populate the poorest district in the Capital.


Says Javed, a relief worker and resident, the extension areas of this north eastern district were inhabited over the last two decades as land values were low here. “It has jeans workers from Bareilly, bakery shops set up by people from Farukkhabad and Bijnor, biryani shops run by people from Aligarh and Moradabad, besides cycle rickshaw pullers, auto drivers, welders, fitters, vegetable and fruit push-card vendors and some Ola-Uber drivers.” This is an area of tiny entrepreneurs.

There is one government school in the Mustafabad constituency which runs four shifts to cater to a large population. A ‘mohalla clinic’ opened just a couple of months back, before the elections.

Unlike even other parts of the city, the migrants have moved in with their families, with no land back home to fall back on, Javed says. Property values are about ₹80,000 per gaj (a square yard, equal to nine sq feet) in unauthorised areas such as Chandbagh and Musafabad, and ₹1.5-2 lakh in Yamuna Vihar. Rentals are ₹6,000-7,000 for a 50 gaj house. It is higher for a shop at a prominent place. “And a fruit seller may earn between ₹8,000 and ₹16,000 depending on the season,” he says.

As a Delhi resident puts it by way of comparison, “it is like Devli gaon or Dakshinpuri in the southern part of the city, without pucca roads, and raw sewage flowing all around.” The slightly better off among the North East district’s 22.42 lakh denizens run small unorganised units that make readymade garments in localities like Seelampur, Jaffrabad and bakery items in parts like Shiv Vihar.

Delhi Government’s Business Register for 2015 shows that of the total 30,521 traced and working enterprises in North East Delhi, more than half, about 17,594, were shops and establishments employing an average of 3.5 persons. The district has 218 factories, even among these “factories”, the average number of employees is 9.5.

Tahir Hussain was among the more prosperous North East inhabitants, who started out with a small woodwork business in his one-room tenement but gradually heaved himself out of poverty by expanding his political contacts and business into a four-storeyed factory-cum-home.

Sharma, whom Hussain has been accused of murdering, lived in a five-ft-wide gali around 50 meters down the lane from Hussain’s home in Khajuri Khas. Sharma’s home, with brown metal gate and ‘Shubh Labh’ painted in silver, is typical of the decrepit architecture and geography of the North East localities. Sharma had been employed by the IB two years back. His father Ravinder, 48, too is a driver with the IB. Now that the identity of the father-son duo has been revealed as having been employed by an intelligence agency in a Muslim majority locality, the precarious life they had set up in Delhi after migrating from Muzaffarnagar, Western UP, two decades back, is lost forever.

His Hindu neighbours mostly believe that Hussain was the kingpin of Muslim mobs, some of whom had gathered in his basement on February 24 and mounted attacks on Hindu homes and establishments. Muslims believe that it was they who were attacked by Hindu mob and Hussain and some others were only trying to protect themselves and others. According to Sabir Ali, a neighbour who is part of an online campaign #savetahirhussain, Hussain tried to pacify crowds with the police the whole day on February 24. In photographs Sabir Ali shared with BusinessLine Hussain is indeed seen appealing to people along with police personnel.

Past and present

Faizal Mirza, a neighbour, showed Facebook pictures of a yesteryear Iftar party hosted by Hussain where he is posing with Kapil Mishra, who had defected to the BJP from AAP before the Delhi Assembly elections and has been at the centre of Delhi riots with his threat to the anti-CAA protestors to “clear out or be cleared out”. “Kapil Mishra has triggered these riots. He was a friend of Hussain. I had also attended this Iftar party and I saw Mishra and Hussain celebrated together. Now Hussain has been charged with murder because Mishra created a riot,” Mirza told BusinessLine .

The sharp dividing lines have diminished the common ground, heightening the fragility and strain of everyday life. In the neighbouring locality of Brijpuri, both communities are still seething from wounds inflicted in the three days’ rioting. Hindu shops, schools and homes were burnt down allegedly by rioting Muslim mobs on February 24 while apparently retaliatory violence claimed the life of a Maulana in a mosque along with his two young students from the madrasa attached to the mosque.

“We are praying for peace to return. I have lost everything,” says Sanjay Kaushik, a businessman in Brijpuri whose home, like Tahir Hussain’s, housed his wholesale business.

Both his home and shop were gutted in the fire.

“With demonetisation, we lost our money. With GST, we have been losing our business. With CAA, our homes are being snatched and now we have the riots where we stand to lose our lives also,” says Babboo Malik, who has a jacket-making business in Jaffrabad.

Jaffrabad, like Gandhi Nagar and Seelampur in the vicinity, has a number of garment manufacturing units that are run and managed mostly by Muslims who comprise 29.3 per cent (6.58 lakh) of the total 22.42 lakh residents of N-E Delhi. There is an equally significant population of Dalits who make for 16.7 per cent (3.74 lakh) of the population. These businesses employing 3-9 people (average) have been non-functional since February 23.

Explains Javed: “Being an unauthorised region by and large, there are few ATMs. People do not have bank accounts. Banks do not extend loans. Savings in the form of cash and valuables are kept at home. The looting has led to a lot of losses”.


Significantly, comparatively older settlements where the population is predominantly Muslim, like Seelampur and Jaffrabad, remained more or less protected from the violence whereas the rioting was more intense in newer colonies such as Shiv Vihar, Bhagirathi Vihar, Mustafabad, Chand Bagh where the population is mixed. Jaffarabad, for instance, was the site of the oldest protest led by women against the CAA and a newer version of it was launched in the week before the riots broke out near the metro station. On February 25, there were skirmishes and even firing between anti-CAA protestors in Jaffrabad and residents of Maujpur but mass scale rioting of the kind witnessed in newer settlements of Khajuri Khas, Yamuna Vihar, Bhagirathi Vihar and Shiv Vihar did not take place.

In fact, late on February 25 night, when intense rioting took place in the newer settlements, residents in Jaffrabad organised a meeting with a volatile crowd protesting against CAA next to the metro station. The Maulanas of different mosques addressed the restive crowd along with Joint Commissioner of Police Narinder Singh Bhalla and other residents brought together by local businessman Babboo Mallik.

“We appeal to you to clear this road and let the traffic pass. We will not let any harm come to you,” Bhalla told the angry crowd, a lot of whom demanded that the BJP leader Kapil Mishra be arrested for provoking the protestors. The Maulanas joined in the appeal and the protestors were finally coaxed into moving out of the area. Residents in Jaffrabad guarded the local temples to stop the miscreants from desecrating them and furthering communal divide. “We asked all the respected elders in the area to guard the temple in Gali Number 33. There are five temples in this area,” says Mohammad Danish in Jaffrabad.

But in the neighbouring newer settlement of Yamuna Vihar, some residents asserted they had resolved to take revenge. “They say they want azadi. We will give it to them tonight,” says Sunil from Yamuna Vihar. His hands were burnt from the petrol bomb he claimed to have thrown at the mosque.


In Shiv Vihar, 90 per cent of the shops, including the local bakeries, were burnt down by the riotous mobs that scribbled ‘Jai Shri Ram’ on the burnt shutters of these establishments. In Phase 6 and Phase 7, Shiv Vihar next to the large drain from where bodies were being fished out till last week, owners of these establishments are still too terror-stricken to start rebuilding. “They are saying there will be more violence in Holi,” says Mohammad Aswan, who runs a roadside stall selling home provisions.

EP Rahmath, a social worker in the Jaffrabad area points out: “These areas are, quite unfortunately, testing grounds of toxic social experiments historically. These areas witnessed violence during the implementation of Congress leader Sanjay Gandhi’s compulsory sterilisation programme in late 1970s.”

According to Rahmath, there is a palpable sense of paranoia among the people now. “This is going to last longer unless there are concerted efforts to bridge gaps and build an atmosphere of harmony.”

With inputs from A Srinivas and Jinoy Jose P

Published on March 10, 2020
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